Revealed: The ultimate ski destination for families on a budget

·7-min read
Bansko - Balkan Holidays
Bansko - Balkan Holidays

Ski resorts don’t come much cheaper than Bansko in Bulgaria. So said the recent Post Office Travel Money ski resort survey. And with our two large beers costing 14 BGN (£6) at Happy End at the foot of the slopes, my husband and I were inclined to agree on our visit to the budget-friendly bolthole.

The Eastern European destination, which came out as Europe’s second best-value ski resort behind fellow Bulgarian favourite Borovets in this year's report, has long been a byword for low-cost ski and snowboard holidays, with wallet-friendly lift pass and lesson prices other European destinations can only dream of.

In fact, the survey found in Austria, prices have risen by 10.1 per cent in Kitzbühel and by nine cent in Zell am See, while in France they are up 8.1 per cent in Les Menuires and by 6.9 per cent in Val Thorens – in Bankso and Borovets they've decreased, by one and 6.6 per cent respectively. When the average spend for an adult on a week’s ski holiday to Zermatt in Switzerland comes in at £1,147.64 for lift passes, ski hire, lessons and meals and drinks on the slopes, compared with £498.84 in Bansko, it’s no surprise the Bulgarian resort has its fans.

But is cheap any good, especially for families? In February 2020, before the pandemic struck, my husband Jon, three-year-old daughter Evie and I set off for Bansko to find out, and apart from hoping for bargains galore, we weren’t sure what else we’d find.

We booked with Balkan Holidays, a UK tour operator that has specialised in holidays to Bulgaria and other eastern European countries for 54 years, and, unsurprisingly, were drawn to the five-star Kempinski Grand Arena hotel. Close to the main access gondola and with a couple of swimming pools and a large spa, compared to its equivalent in the Alps it sounded like fantastic value.

Our family room was spacious and had more than enough storage for the three of us, staff went out of their way to make our daughter feel at home, and we had some fantastic meals in its four restaurants.

Things hadn’t looked quite so promising at the start; our hearts sank when we discovered our outbound flight departed at an ungodly 5.40am. But thanks to staying in the Bloc hotel at Gatwick airport, and Balkan Holidays’ slick check-in, it wasn’t as bad as we feared and we were soon fast asleep again on the first flight of the day out of Gatwick.

Set at 936m, Bansko may not have the snow-sure, high-altitude location of some big name Alpine resorts, but the slopes reach 2,600m and the Pirin Mountains have a good snow record.

Evie was booked into the main ski school kindergarten, Ulen, which runs daily from 9am to 4.30pm, including an hour-long ski lesson after lunch. It’s based at the top of the 25-minute gondola from town at Bunderishka Polyana, in the middle of the nursery slopes.

The kindergarten is open to kids aged from four to seven, and as Evie was nearly four, they allowed her to join. However we did get the impression everyone thought we were at the very least a bit unconventional for wanting her to ski. Bulgarian kids don’t start school until they’re seven, and it’s the same with ski school – group lessons with Ulen start from age seven.

ski school - Balkan Holidays
ski school - Balkan Holidays

But even if Evie couldn’t really learn to ski as we’d hoped, how could we resist a week of kindergarten for just £130? The lunches may not have been as chichi as with the ESF’s Club Piou Piou in France, but Svetlana, Poly and the team were kind and caring. And for a third of the price of something similar with the ESF.

Three families from South Wales that Jon and I met in Happy End were enthusiastic about the cost savings too. One of the mums, Rachel Lloyd, explained, “We’ve basically come because it’s half the price of a catered chalet in the French Alps. We’re staying in a lovely one down in the old town, they shuttle us to the lifts every day, and our kids – aged five to 14 – are loving it.” Bansko’s picturesque old town is around 20-minutes walk from the ski area, along a street lined with bars and shops.

With Evie settled into the kindergarten, happily playing on the indoor slide, we were free to explore Bansko’s 75km of slopes. A week’s lift pass costs BGN400 (£188) for adults (children up to seven are free) when bought in resort. However, it was well worth buying everything in advance – Balkan Holidays’ ski pack, including lift pass, lessons and kit hire, is £202 per adult per week.

Apart from the nursery area, the pistes are mainly blues and steep reds, plus one properly steep black that two weeks before our visit had hosted World Cup women’s downhill and super G races.

Jon and I made a beeline for the runs from the Chalin Valog chairlift, which are fairly short but were blissfully quiet, while the long, flowing runs off the Mosta lift skirted the trees and provided perfect high-octane cruising.

The Kempinski Grand Arena hotel - Balkan Holidays
The Kempinski Grand Arena hotel - Balkan Holidays

Also enjoying the slopes were a group of musicians in their late 20s from Leeds, who proudly described paying £1.50 for a beer in Kolibata, one of the mountain restaurants on the long home run. They were on a quest to find even cheaper in the old town that evening.

That long home run, from top to bottom of the gondola, is graded blue but in practice it is very easy going, more like a green run with a couple of gentle blue sections. Wide and laid back, it winds prettily down through the trees next to a babbling river and makes a great challenge for progressing beginners.

We’d covered the whole ski area well before the end of the week but were happy to settle into a daily rhythm of a decent ski and some spa time, making the most of the child care. Then it was on to playing together as a family, either on skis next to the kindergarten, on sledges or in the pool. We even managed some family après dancing to the covers band, Mr Vagabond, in Happy End – if Evie was a bit older we’d have checked out the daily magic show for kids at Queen’s Pub on the road into town, held every evening to rave reviews.

A family ski holiday with young kids isn’t about skiing from first lift to last lift, it’s about having fun together in the mountains, and we definitely succeeded in that.

It was a sentiment shared by Lisa Davies, a grandma on holiday with seven of her family, the youngest being 14 months old. It was her fourth visit to Bansko with Balkan Holidays and she told us, “It’s as cheap as chips, but the friends we’ve brought along with us over the years are always really surprised by what’s here – they don’t expect it to be as good as it is.”

And that’s the great thing about Bansko – it’s so cheap, everyone just gets on with enjoying themselves, and so did we. It may not have the extent of some other resorts but it has zero pretensions and we loved it for that. We returned home with expectations exceeded and family memories made, as well as change in our pocket.

Essentials

Seven nights half board at the five-star Kempinski Hotel Grand Arena costs from £1,857 per family of three (two adults and a child aged two to 11) with Balkan Holidays (balkanholidays.co.uk; 0207 543 5555), departing January 8 2022, including flights and transfers. Adult ski pack, including lift pass, ski/board and boots and tuition, costs £222. Junior Ski Club for children aged four to seven is free. Rooms at the Bloc Hotel in Gatwick airport (blochotels.com) start from £69 a night.

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